Valoree grimaced at the societal foolishness of forbidding womento travelalone, and threwthe door of thecarriage open.
Ah, well.She would makedo.With a quick heave, she clambered into the coach. This woman would serve her purpose. Itwasonly once she was inside that Valoree noticed the other woman’s pallor. Left over from her drunken state the night before, no doubt, Valoree thought dryly.Shelooked soberenoughto play her part, though. In fact, today the womanlooked sosober that Valoree almost pitiedher.Her "aunt"would probably welcome a littlehair of the dog that had bitten her.
However, other than obviously suffering the ill effects of overindulgence – her facehadaslightly gray casttoit, andthe linesaround her eyes andtheway shewas squintingspoke of head pain – "Aunt Meg" looked fine, much better even than Valoree had hoped. Her new gown, black and demure, and her carefullyupswepthair gave her aregal air. In fact, if She hadn’t knownbetter, Valoree might have swornthe woman wasatrue lady, rather than the prostituteshe knewher to be.
"Ye’re ready, " Valoree said as she arranged herself in the coach.
One eyebrow arched majestically, and the woman subjected Valoreeto the same inspection she herself hadjust been through.
"You’re not, "came her response.
Valoree blinked, then felt anger wash through her."Whatthe helldo youmean, I’mnot? " she snapped.
"Yourhair.A ladywouldnever walk about with herhair all wild about her head likethat."
Valoree raiseda hand to herhead, a frown onher lips. "I – "
"Sit, " the womanordered, gesturing tothe carriage seat beside her, and apparently fully expecting to be obeyed.She turned and began to sift through the contents of a small bag on the seat beside her. "Iexpected as much, whichis why I asked your man Henry to collect a couple of things – Aha!" Pulling a brushfree of the bag, she turnedandsmiled triumphantly at Valoree, then frowned at her lackof response.She smacked the empty portion of the bench seat again."Well, come on!"
Valoree hesitated, then glanced at Henry, who had followed herto the carriage and now stood studying herhairwith a frown.
"She’s right, I guess. Ladies usually have their hair uplike hers."
Thoughannoyed by the fact, Valoree hadto admit she herself was completely ignorant of what ladies did or did notdo. She had riot left the ship more than a handful of times over the past thirteen years. When shewasyounger, theports theyhad usually put in to were notthe sort Jeremy and Henry felt she needed to visit. Andwhen she had become Back-from-the-DeadRed, she had remained primarily on the ship to avoid discovery of her identity. All her memories of society werefromher very early childhood. She hadno ideawhat ladies were sporting nowadays.
Cursing volubly, she switchedto the other seat with a flounce of her skirts. Sheignored "Aunt Meg’s" reproving look as the woman setto workon her hair.
The coach jouncedandjostledmore than a smallshipanthe high seas. Harder, too. Valoree grimaced as it crashed over another bump and gingerly raised a hand toher head.
Her discomfort didnotgounnoticed. "Are you ill? Youlook quitepale, " theold woman across from her asked with feigned sympathy.
Valoree’seyes snapped to her"aunt.""If I am looking ill, it is because every part ofmyscalp ison fire." The womanhad swept her hair upin a towering coiffure andpiled itonher head. "And by the way, I am not foolish enough to think that ladies go throughthatkind ofpainevery time they put theirhairup – soif you try another trick like that, I’ll haveyou whipped. Andkeep yourmouth shut whilewe are in this meeting. The lastthing I need is for this Whister fellow to figure out you are an old prostitute."
Meg stiffened, then colored at the insult. Valoree felt a moment’s regret, but it was brief. She hadtoo manyworries and toolittle time tobe overly concerned with anyone’shurt feelings.
Her entire crew, and now this woman, were dependent onher for both a home and a newway of life.Shewas feelingthe strain.
And it hadn’thelped that the woman had pulled her hair awfully as she’d tugged itinto shape.
"Myapologies, mydear"Aunt Meg said haughtily, sounding every inch a noble asthecoachfinallycame toa lurching halt."I shall endeavorto remain silent whileatthisappointment should it please you. However, Ihave lived the’good life’solong, onecan never be sure of not meetingaprevious … patron. Let us hope this lawyer ofyours isnot one of them."
Valoree’s eyes widened in horror at the possibility, and her "aunt" smiledback with quiet malice. Further conversation was cut off as One-Eye opened the door of the coach.
"Damn." Valoree cursed underher breathasMeg exited, then movedquickly to follow the woman, intenton catching her and shovingher back into the coach. She was not willing to risk Whister’s recognizing her. Surelyitwasdoubtfulthathe hadever solicitedherfavors, butone never knew. Unfortunately, in her sudden panicto catch the woman, Valoree used more speedthan care in disembarking, and she managed to trounce on, thentangle her foot in, the folds of her skirt. She ended by tumblingtothe ground outside the coach, her hair falling out of its do and tumbling around her shoulders.
One-Eye blinked his onegood eye, then gaped down at herin horror as she tried tostruggle to her feet. Henry was a touch more helpful. Leapingfrom his seatbeside the driver, he hurried toassist her.
"Whatare ye doin’, yesillysouse? " he snapped, slappingthe other man inthe back of the head and knockingthe fine newhat he woreaskew. Hehelped Valoree back toher feet."What were ye gonna do? Leave her lyin’ there till the dolphins swam alongside ye? "
"Well…" One-Eye straightened hiscap and hurried to brush down her skirts in aneffort to remove the mudthatnowclung to them."How was I toknowshe was to be needin’ help gettin’up? Sheain’t never needed helpgettin’up afore."
"She wasn’t a lady before. Shewas the captain."
"Well, and soshe’s still the captain now."
"Aye, but she’swearin’ adress. That makes her alady. And ladiesis moredelicate and helplessthancaptains. Just look at how shetumbledout of the coach like a – Ah!"
"Thatis the blade of myknife you are feelin’ at your arse, Henry, " Valoreeannouncedcoolly, annoyed byhis words. "It’s a little reminder that dress or nodressI am still your captain. I am nothelpless.Got that? "
"Aye, sir. Ma’am. Melady, " One-Eye, added.
Grunting insatisfaction, Valoreeplacedherknife back inthe bag she had brought alongfor just that purpose, and waited asthe men straightened oneither side of her. "Now. You two shall wait here with the hack. My "aunt" and I shallgo in and see Mr.
Whister. Youwillnotaccost anypasserby nortalk at all. You will stand silent and solemn-faced at yourposts. If I come out and find either of you behaving at all in any way that is unbefitting of footmen, I shall have you whipped. All right? "
"Aye-aye, Cap’n. Me lady."
"Very good, "she muttered, thenstarted up the path to the front door where Meg stood waiting. She knew the men knew her threats were mostly idle – she’d never whipped eitherof themin all thetime they’dsailedtogether – but shealso knewthat such threats were the only way to convey the seriousness of the situation.
Aunt Meg apparently saw it differently. "Youshould not draw your knife in public, dear. It is most unbecoming in a lady.
Should anyone see – "
"No one saw."
"You don’t count."
"No, I do not suppose Ido, " thewoman muttered as Valoree reached totap at the door. Aftera moment she added, "There is nothing to worry about."
Hand still raised, Valoree glanced at her sharply. "I am not worried."
"I see. Well, your men toldme that when you arecranky it is usually becauseyou are worried and refusing to show it."
"My menarea bunch ofcarpies."
"They care for youvery much.AndI think you careforthem, too."
The commentsilenced Valoree foramoment; then a peevish anger overtookher.She tried glaring the other womandown, but the creaturewas notto be intimidated.
"They are like family to you, are they not? "
Sighing, Valoree swallowed and glanced back at the door.
"Theyare. The only familyI have."
"And youfear youwillfailthem, " Meg guessed, then rushed on when Valoreestarted toprotestoncemore. ‘There isno reason tofear that. I’ve heard of yourdifficulties. It matters little if your behaviorisnotexactlythat of a lady. They cannot refuse you your inheritance for that. Besides, you shall see it is not that difficult toplayat being alady. Youmerely needto say as little as possibleand followmylead."
Before Valoree could comment, the door before them swung opento reveal a solemn-faced servant.
"Lady Valoree Ainsley and her aunt tosee Master Whister."
Meg madethe announcement imperiously, stridinguninvited into the entry as if she had every right. Gesturing for Valoree to follow, she turned to the servant to add, "We have an appointment."
"Of course, my lady." Bowing, the servantnoddedat Valoree as she entered, then closed the door. "Master Whister iswith another client, buthe should be only amoment. Ifyou would wait in here? " Turning toa door on his left, he opened it forthem, then bowed again as "Aunt" Meg led Valoree past him intothe room.
"I shallsee to some refreshments for you ladies while you wait, " he continued."Ifyou would care to – " Asudden shout from the room across the hallmade him pauseand glance toward it nervously, a frown sliding across his face. The expression quickly disappeared, . however, andhe gave them a sickly sweet smile. "I shall bebackdirectly with thoserefreshments."
Valoree nodded solemnlyto the man, barelywaiting forhim to withdraw and pull the door closed before hurrying forward.
Resting her hand on the doorknob, she leaned her ear to the wood in an effort tolisten to the shouting comingfrom acrossthe hall. Unfortunately, she could hear nothing but Meg’s hissing reprimand as the older womanflew acrossthe room to pull her away.
"Please calm down, Lord Thurborne. "’Tis not as bad as all that, " Whistersoothed.
"Notas bad as all that? " Daniel glaredat the man seated across from him. "Youtellme that to claim my inheritance from my grandmother – money the Thurborne estates need quite desperately, by the way – I have to… to… What the helldid you say? " Hebrokeoff irritably, reaching acrossthe desktosnatch up the scroll the man had been reading from before he’d interrupted. " ‘To give up my dissolute ways, finda bride of noble blood, and begetan heirfromher, ‘ " Daniel read grimly, then slammed the parchment down.
"LadyThurborne, yourgrandmother, was concernedthat you were not taking yourtitle and position seriously. She wished to seeyou settled andhappy."
"Settled and miserable, you mean, " Danielsaidwitha snarl, then stood topace the smallish room."I cannot believe shedid this.I cannot believe she couldeven comeup with this on her own. Someonemust have – "He stilled, anger filling him as he saw theway theother man was suddenly nervously straightening hisdesk and avoiding lookingathim."You!"
Whister jumped slightly in his seat, his gaze guiltily meeting that of theyoungerman. "Me? "
Daniel’seyes narrowed grimly. "Yougave herthis idea, didn’t you? "
"I-I may havementioned thataclient of mine had madejust suchastipulation inhiswilltowardhisdaughter’s inheritance, "
headmitted unhappily, then lookedup with a meek smile."In fact, the daughter inquestion isprobably awaiting me out inthe salonright now, LordThurborne. I wasnot expectingyoutoday andshe – "
"Oh, well, you should see her at once then, by all means, "
Daniel said in a snarl, moving toward the door. "I would not mean to be so rude as to intrudeon someone else’s appointment. I shall just wait until you are finished and then speak to you.
Unlessthere’sa stipulationin the willagainst that, too, " headded dryly as he reached and openedthe door. Outside, Whister’s man was just openingthedoor acrossthehall.
"What are you doing? Are youmad? Youcannot – "
"Shut up!" Valoree hissed back. "How am I supposedtohear anything with you caterwauling in my ear? I am trying to – Ouch!" The suddenopening of thedoor madeher stumble several steps backward, herhand on the doorknob the only thing that kept herupright asthewooden doorcrashedinto herhead. "Oh, my lady! Iam ever so sorry!"
Valoree recognized the butler’s voice and even managed a smile, though it was more grimace than anything. Asshe raised a handto rub at the sore spot on her skull, she suddenly found herself surrounded by people. Meghad moved quickly to her side, her expression more chiding than concerned. The butler was fluttering helplessly beforeher, horrified guilt written allover his face for braining her, however unintentionally. She alsosaw that a second man, much younger, and obviously of thenobility, had crossed the hall to join them. Valoree suspected his was the shoutingvoiceShe had been trying to eavesdrop on. That being the case, shesupposed she should feelchagrinat beingcaught.
Instead, she felt annoyed. If therewasone thing Valoree hated, it was feeling foolish, and the obviousamusementin the man’s eyes was making her feel just that.
"I was just coming to inform you that refreshments would not be a moment, " the butler said, drawing her gaze again. He was wringinghis hands miserably ashe eyed her. "Inever meant to – Well, I did notexpect youto be – Can I get you anything? A cold compress, perhaps? "
"Stop fussing, man, " Valoree snapped. Herhead was beginning to pound, and mollycoddlingwould simply makeit worse."It’s notthefirsttimeI’ve been knocked about a bit, you know."
The sudden silence thatfellgave her the first hint shemight have misspoken. With a gulp of dismay, she took in the threesome around her. Meg looked horrified, and the butler and the newcomer lookedcompletelynonplussed.
Sighing, sheclosed hereyes. Yes, thathad most likely beenthe wrong thing to say. Most ladies probably didn’t get knocked about.Ever. And if they did, they certainly didn’tadmit it. She should have thoughtbefore speaking. That was one of thefirst thingsShe had learned to do as captain of a ship full ofpirates.